Sometimes to get around Manila, you need to take a trike. They’re motorcycles with sidecars. The drivers weave around the traffic and up onto sidewalks. They're noisy and emit a lot of exhaust too.
But not Alfredo Forelo’s trike.
A few months ago, the 38-year-old traded in his old one, for a new, battery-powered e-trike. It holds up to eight passengers and can hardly be heard. On the old tricycles, he used to get sick a lot, he says; like catching a cold, the flu or asthma. But not anymore. The e-trikes are easier to drive and more comfortable than the old ones.
At the moment, there are only around 15 e-trikes out on the streets. But the Asia Development Bank plans that in five years there’ll be a fleet of 100-thousand.
Sohail Hasnie heads the ADB’s E-trike program. He says the new bikes’ benefits will be felt across the board.
“The Philippines government spends close to 8 to 10 billion dollars on importing oil as a net energy importer," he explains. "And of course there are a lot of inefficient ways these get consumed by tricycle drivers who do not really have much of a choice in terms of new technology.
If you are a pedestrian, of course you like riding around in something that is safe, comfortable and air if it is cleaner. E trikes provide all those solutions in a single goal.”
Hasnie estimates that e-trikes will offset much of the nearly 4 tons of CO2 produced by gas powered trikes in Manila each year.
But Beau Baconguis, Philippines program manager for Greenpeace, says e-trikes only substitute tail pipes for smoke stacks.
“When you plug these hundreds of thousands of e-trikes, you will be using up a lot of electricity that is very dependent right now on coal. The environmental impact is not direct, in terms of emissions.. the emission there is coming from the coal plant when you charge your trikes.”
Other environmentalists say the e-trike’s lithium ion batteries are not as beneficial as they might seem. Red Constantino is director of the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities in Manila.
“The problem with lithium ion batteries, they cost more and virtually zero after sale service in the country. If one single cell breaks down, the whole battery goes kaput and there is no repair shop anywhere for such batteries.”
Constantino says even though lead batteries aren’t as environmentally friendly as lithium ion, there are at least recycling centers for them in the Philippines. They’re the kind of batteries his organization uses for their fleet of electric passenger trucks, known as jeepneys.
Outside a shopping mall in Manila’s Makati City, passengers climb into the back of these e-jeepneys and pass change up to the driver.
Constantino says these are a better alternative to the e-trikes, in terms of both the environment and safety.
“The bigger the vehicle, the more efficient it is in reducing emissions and using less energy to ferry passengers from one place to another. Tricycles are small, they encourage door to door transport of people instead of allowing them to walk. The problem with the ADB e-trike program is that it will locate the tricycles haphazardly, wherever there is a demand rather than reducing the presence of tricycles, which are also a safety concern. They are notorious for not following any traffic rules.”
The Asia Development Bank’s Sohail Hasnie concedes that his e-trikes still have problems to resolve, like battery repair service. But as for e-jeepneys, he says they’re just too expensive right now.
“You need a larger motor, you need a larger battery, the costs keep going up and up.”
And that’s a big problem, he says, because most drivers own their own vehicles. Hasnie adds e-trikes give poor drivers, like Alfredo Forelo, a more affordable means to make a living.
Forelo tells me that he brings home more money these days with his e-trike because he saves on gas. He pays a much smaller fee to charge his battery.
I ask him if he’d go back to driving a gas powered trike. He says no, not again.